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Wednesday, May 19, 2010  

More than one way to succeed

The administration and its allies in the Pennsylvania Democratic establishment have gotten some grief today for failing to keep Specter above water against Joe Sestak, and it is to some extent deserved (how, for instance, can Ed Rendell be so continually out of touch with the political dynamics in his own state?). But electoral success in the primary and general elections is only one way to measure what the party did here. My hunch, from the day of Specter's party switch until now, has been that Obama was showing support not to much with the fall of 2010 in mind but with the legislative agenda of 2009 in mind. With a primary challenger in the mix and decades of working for the other team at his back, Specter needed this establishment and administration support badly, and he had to behave in order to get and keep it. And behave he did. In fact, Specter surpassed all the (admittedly low) expectations set for him by his new co-partisans. Here's what I wrote last year:

The balance of power in a legislature is a zero-sum game; whatever Republicans (who, remember, hate Specter easily as much as Atrios does) are losing, Democrats are gaining, and it can't be nothing. And I think it's entirely plausible that there will be at least a mild Jeffords effect on Specter, pulling him at least into Nelson-Bayh territory (or, in this congress, Lieberman territory) and perhaps to something more appropriate to his region and the safety of his seat.

This turned out to be a significant understatement. Specter stuck with the leadership on all the big issues. This no doubt is what Obama wanted. So the West Wing today may or may not be truly saddened by Specter's defeat, but they at least got something for their trouble. With the next Congress set to be a harder row to hoe (though perhaps not as much harder as recent apocalyptic predictions have had it), the votes yesterday were more important than the potential votes tomorrow. That's how you do politics.

In other political news, the national Republican Party continues to have a very hard go of it. Their hand-picked non-lunatic candidate in Kentucky got brutalized by a neophyte in the primary. A special election in Pennsylvania that should have gone their way didn't. Old stereotypes die hard. Once derided as a party blinkered by ideological obsessions, riven by factional infighting, and impotent in modern electioneering, the Democrats have put together a very impressive run in special elections going back to 2003 or so, and have taken and then expanded congressional majorities by being extremely flexible about which candidates get nominated in a given place. Republicans, meanwhile, have really advanced the art of the circular firing squad. Despite having no agenda and no credibility on governing, national Republicans were set to make big gains this year. They still might. But it's clear that they are currently in the process of fumbling a political opportunity that may not come again any time soon.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:20 AM
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